How to ask for help
Blog post by ELP Student Anil Tolwani (Statistics | Class of 2022) Interning at FMB Technologies
This summer I learned a lot. I tried to start a startup in a field at the intersection of two fields – hardware and healthcare – both of which I knew almost nothing about and try to make a product that people wanted enough they were willing to pay. Despite the hours I had to spend just reading papers and getting a basic understanding of the subject matter, where I feel like I’ve learned the most isn’t any specific piece of knowledge – but how to clearly communicate and ask for help.
During the summer I had the opportunity to interact with more than 100 incredible people, whether it be growing startup founders, Vice Presidents at research universities, and most importantly, potential customers. Through the process, I’ve dived in headfirst and experienced (painfully) probably every possible mistake that you can make. Here are a couple things that I’ve learned:
Less is more.
Less is more. Although this is common advice that I had heard many times before, I always could find a million reasons this didn’t apply to us – no scientist wanted to hear flowery unspecific language or waste their time meeting someone who didn’t know anything about their research – but I learned painstakingly that being concise was the best way to operate. I found this especially hard at first since made me feel like I had to choose between two terrible options: I could either choose to be specific and miss a large part of the vision and explanation or I could be ambiguous and not give them a good reason to actually respond and explain why they could really help. In the end, I found the former to be better and draw a delicate balance – specific enough for them to want to be involved while leaving out enough details for them to be intrigued.
Approach every situation as a student.
One of your biggest advantages as a student founder is that you can approach almost anyone imaginable for advice without seeming out of the ordinary at all. You check two charity case boxes: you’re a student who hasn’t experienced anything in the world yet, and a founder who’s crazy enough to think they can make a dent in the world. Now It might feel a little demeaning to consider yourself this way, but if you’re dead set on solving the problem you’re working on, you can use this to your advantage and make it your biggest point of leverage and competitive edge. Approach every single situation as a student simply trying to understand whatever it is this person does better. Not only will this make getting conversations with important people orders of magnitude easier, but it will convince them that you are here to learn first and make money second – which is powerful in it of itself. It lets you make mistakes and get real feedback from people that your competitors could never get a meeting with over fear of being approached by a “corporate entity.” In our case, this became one of our biggest competitive advantages – we could talk to people that would never even look at an email from a non .edu email address. And at the beginning, we took this to the extreme – every single meeting I had I brought a laundry list of two pages of questions and furiously took notes to every word they said. And although this was definitely stupid – the best customer interviews are more conversations than interrogations – it did accomplish one thing – it told them that I was there to help above all else and regardless of what mistakes I made it was all out of good intention.
Despite the last point, being purposeful in who you ask for help doesn’t imply being unauthentic. Before you reach out to someone and ask for some of their valuable time, make sure it will be time well spent for both of you. Don’t just approach someone because they seem well connected or seem like someone good to “have in your network.” If you’re being at all duplistic, people will always sense it and it will only reflect negatively on you. And not so ironically, the people that just seem “well connected” are usually not the people you want to ask for help in the first place. Practically, one easy way to enforce this is to hand write every single email, text, or question you ever send to them. I find that the act of being forced to follow a highly manual process (as opposed to simply copy and pasting a template) not only forces you to only talk to those you need most, but ironically it makes them more likely to respond.
Have a clear ask.
If I had a nickel for every time someone said they “had some people they think would be good to connect with” but didn’t actually follow up with anything, I’d never have to worry about funding again. Realistically though, you should always follow up after a conversation with a CRYSTAL clear ask on what exactly you would find helpful from them for two reasons: First off, it shows them that you’re serious. So much of these conversations are nebulous: what person in their right mind would ever say no in the moment to someone offering them help, even if they didn’t want it? Secondly, and more importantly, it makes it 100x for them to actually help you. With some faith in humanity, I genuinely do believe that people who say this and don’t follow through want to be helpful, it’s just very hard to do so without a specific to do on how. Be the person that makes it simple to do so.
Optimize for second order conversations.
Often times, the person that you really want to talk to isn’t the first person you meet, but the friend of a friend that is recommended. Not only will this give you a warm introduction from a friend of theirs, but often times they will do the hard work in finding someone that has the time, experience, and motivation to actually help you. Personally, I found this doubly important for us since the research community is literally built on a foundation of peer feedback and collaboration and so having the green light from one of their colleagues working two doors over made the next few conversations (with hopefully eventual customers) exponentially easier to navigate. Thus, you should be purposeful in thinking how they will perceive you, but how they will pitch you to their colleagues as someone who is worth their time or money. You have to convince them that you’re so good, they can stake their own reputation by recommending you to others. In my experience, this means two things: firstly, giving them enough information to be impressed with what you’ve done, and secondly, leaving out enough information for them to be intrigued enough to want to learn more. Think of the people you recommend to others, what commonalities do they have? Then, try to emulate it.
If there’s one concluding note to leave it’s this: be hopeful. You never know how much someone can help until you ask them. From personal experience, it seems as though the emails that are total longshots — people that I would expect to not have the five seconds to read an email, much less even use any of their precious time to meet someone they know nothing about — are ironically the people that are using five exclamation points to express their enthusiasm to meet. I’m not sure why exactly this is – perhaps it’s that most other people think like me and don’t even send the first email – but regardless, I’ve really appreciated just how far a cold email can really take you. Regardless, you’ll never find out just how far you can take it until you do. And when you do, I think you’ll be surprised.